More than twenty years ago, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháís of the United States published a statement declaring that “[r]acism is the most challenging issue confronting America” (The Vision of Race Unity). This past year has reinforced the public awareness of this truth: 59% of the nation’s population believes that “our country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites”, compared to only 46% about a year ago (Pew Research Center). I grieve to wonder how many of the remaining 41% recognize the systemic challenges faced by African Americans, and either don’t care or, worse yet, are satisfied with them.
As a white, multi-generational American, I have benefited tremendously from centuries of this systemic and institutional racism. And it feels as if there is little I can do to remedy the continuing injustice. I try to play my part through acting on the threat of climate change — which is disproportionately impacting those already at a disadvantage relative to me *.
Over the past year, I have kept my mouth shut, and eyes open. There are too few African Americans in my social circles, so most everything I hear is filtered through news and social media. The Guardian seems to have done a good job of covering the issues from the standpoint of freedom and equality**. From these sources do I learn my limited insights on the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter.
One of those important insights is this: it is not about me. Saying that “all lives matter,” for example, would sound like a nice platitude for reaching out to everyone (why are Latinos excluded?). But in truth, it comes across as an attempt to wrest control of the narrative back to include me (white male). And it is thus a slap in the face to the urgent necessity of recognizing that black lives are not, in fact, treated equally with white lives in America.
It isn’t about me. I should sit back and listen. Read. Learn. Think deeply about how to handle those moments when my actions and words might make me part of the problem — or, hopefully, part of the solution. And then, set ego aside and act in service.
Writing this feels mildly inconsistent, as if I were turning the conversation back on myself after all. Nevertheless, self-reflection is critical if I am to “lend effective support to the resolution of a problem that hinders the advance of this great republic toward the full realization of its glorious destiny” (from the Vision of Race Unity).
* Resources dealing with climate and pollution impacts on health and justice:
- Here's how environmental justice advocates improved Obama's Clean Power Plan, by Jalonne L. White-Newsome in Grist (Aug 2015).
- Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California.
- Human Health, chapter from the National Climate Assessment (2014)
- The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, research from the Minority Rights Group Internatioanl (2008).
- Asthma and African Americans, data collated by the Office of Minority Health. Cites tobacco specifically, but not pollution, as a driver of asthma.
- Children's Environmental Health Disparities: Black and African American Children and Asthma, fact sheet from the Environmental Protection Agency, directly connecting ozone and other pollutants to asthma. These pollutants are corollary byproducts of the fossil fuel burning that is a significant driver of climate change.
** A few examples:
- Black Lives Matter has showed us: the oppression of black people is borderless, by Steven W. Thrasher (Aug 2015).
- #BlackLivesMatter: the birth of a new civil rights movement, by Elizabeth Day (July 2015).
- The Counted, a series addressing "people killed by police in the US".